Last Tuesday, Jerry Seinfeld performed a brief five-minute set on Jimmy Fallon’s new Tonight Show. The material was milquetoast (“What’s the deal with cellphones?” “How outdated is the Post Office?”); the reception, mediocre. And yet, the only thing that mattered was significance – Jerry Seinfeld, a man who credits Johnny Carson with putting him on the map, appearing as the first-ever stand-up comedian on a brand new iteration of The Tonight Show (an iteration that returned the vaunted franchise to New York, no less).
As far as Jerry Seinfeld was concerned, this appearance represented a coup, a lark, a resume builder for the man who needs no introduction. More to the point, Jerry’s Tonight Show appearance represented the latest in an ongoing string of career moves aimed at reinforcing a point. Namely, that Jerry Seinfeld sees himself as the platinum standard in comedians, and he’d like it very much if the general public would agree.
The problem isn’t Seinfeld’s dedication. He’s been a constant on the stand-up circuit for well over 30 years. He can sell out an auditorium, he can kill inside a night club. And yet his public persona will forever be linked to some amped-up version of himself presented via the most popular – if not quotable – situation comedy of all-time.
Forget about the fact that Jerry Seinfeld co-founded and co-wrote that treasured sitcom, that Seinfeld‘s still a juggernaut in syndication. Forget about the fact that Seinfeld overcame a dreaded laugh track, that it was the last great network comedy to maintain a spot atop the ratings. What people will – and do – remember is that character – Jerry. Jerry, the straight man, Jerry, the neighbor, Del Boca Vista Jerry, Uromysitisis Jerry, These-Pretzels-Are-Making-Me-Thirsty Jerry.
Jerry. Jerry. Jerry. Jerry.
Not the stand-up Jerry whose passing bits were used as bumpers. Not the stand-up Jerry who feels under-appreciated as a comic. Not the Jerry who, at the height of his sitcom’s popularity, released a cobbled-together collection of old bits entitled SeinLanguage. Not the Jerry who embarked upon a whirlwind tour during the same year as Seinfeld‘s curtain call. Not the Jerry who was the focus of a 2002 documentary entitled Comedian. Not the Jerry who agreed to host several seasons of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. Not the Jerry who did a 2012 video piece for the New York Times entitled “How to Write a Joke“. Not the Jerry who very recently followed that piece up with an interview entitled (get this), The Ballad of Leno and Letterman, Told by Seinfeld.
No, sir. Stand-up Jerry … now that’s another Jerry entirely.
Prominent, yes. Beloved, most definitely. And yet, the insinuation positions Seinfeld as little more than a custodian, a curator, James Lipton for the stand-up set. Call it Comedic Deconstructionism, perhaps Induction by Association. Regardless of the name, what Jerry Seinfeld is doing, ever so cunningly, is inserting himself into the conversation. It’s a brilliant piece of marketing, if not the key to modern advertising: Present a unified message via various platforms, and watch it seep into the record.
Consider Jay Leno, a public figure who’s long since suffered the opposite fate of Jerry Seinfeld. For years, Leno stood atop the late-night ratings heap. And yet, he was vilified throughout the media. The modus operandi for any public figure (with the exception of Howard Stern) when asked about Jay Leno was to shift into default mode, praising Leno’s ability as a stand-up. Letterman initiated this trend, primarily because he could not think of any compliment to pay the man. Letterman was in a precarious position – the ratings loser who most tastemakers adored. After kicking Leno repeatedly, Dave shifted into magnanime, digging deep into his soul to offer Leno this: “He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever known.”
Almost immediately, the Leno Myth was born.
To call Jay Leno a great stand-up would be to blur the line between craftsmanship and comedy. No one – and I mean, no one – goes around quoting old Jay Leno bits. No one’s ever credited Jay Leno with challenging stereotypes or shifting paradigms, or even being belly-laugh hilarious, for that matter. What people have said – and continue to say – is that they admire how wholly effortless Jay Leno made it look onstage.
This is a critical distinction in that the more relaxed any comedian appears, the more likely any audience might be to go along. Despite that, the ability to put an audience at ease can’t ever be construed as a surrogate for comedy. Chris Rock has little interest in putting an audience at ease. Zach Galifianakis can flip the tension like a light switch. Lenny Bruce was the antithesis of ease. And yet, Jay Leno inhabits a much loftier space than any of these three.
All of which spells opportunity for a comedian like Seinfeld.
For in Leno, Seinfeld sees a network mainstay, one whose 20+-year run was so utterly forgettable all any schmo can think to say is, “That guy could spin pure gold inside a night club.” It’s an insult, quite frankly, considering all that Mr. Leno has achieved. On the other hand, it’s the lone outstanding compliment Jerry Seinfeld’s still pursuing.
Consider Seinfeld’s recent Super Bowl commercial. I mean, what a gyp, right? Ninety seconds worth of nothing (and not the good kind of nothing the majority of us have come to expect). An objective Jerry Seinfeld might look back at that ad as an unnecessary use of his former cache. Yet, stand-up Jerry more than likely approached it as a cost-free opportunity to drive traffic to his web series. Bait and switch, trading a whiff of past celebrity for a boost in stand-up status.
During the most recent episode of Comedians In Cars, which also represented the final installment of Season Three, Howard Stern put it bluntly to Seinfeld: “Do you think you’re one of the best stand-ups that ever lived? Would you put yourself in the top five?” Jerry’s response: “Comedy is more personal than food.” Evasive. A cop out, if not genuinely misleading. Comedy is subjective, sure. But any list of the top 10 comedians is certain to include some necessary overlap – Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, perhaps even George Carlin. By way of comparison, had Stern asked Jerry whether he considered Seinfeld one of the greatest sitcoms of all-time, one gets the sense there’d be very little hesitation. The numbers are there. The case has been made. Who on earth could dispute it?
Everything in Jerry Seinfeld’s universe is meta. He played himself on a network sitcom about nothing. He reappeared playing himself – as that same character – on Curb Your Enthusiasm. He taped a real-life version of Comedians in Cars featuring his fake pal, George Costanza. Jerry is constantly slipping in and out of different persona. Stand-up Jerry, on the other hand, has rigidly aligned himself with the masters – becoming a comedian’s comedian, the connective tissue between muscle. It’s a brilliant maneuver, one that’s elevated his street cred. But it remains to be seen whether elder-statesman Jerry can ever rival Kenny Bania.